Canadian geek in Myanmar

Category: Random Geek Stuff


Every time I go back to Canada, I have people asking me what it’s like to live in a place like Myanmar. While Yangon and Vancouver are worlds apart on about every measuring stick I could use, living here is not all that different on a daily basis. I work during the day, visit with friends at night and run errands on the weekend. Really, not that different from Vancouver. This surprises and probably disappoints them as their vague exposure to Myanmar centers around human rights and religious abuses, natural disasters and a lady who was stuck in a house for a very long time. It wasn’t until I moved to Myanmar that I understood what “life through a straw” meant.   

While these stories are important and should not be disregarded, there’s also the other side – that of the Myanmar as a normal society with normal human problems and solutions. Governments introducing policy, entrepreneurs starting businesses, parents feeding their kids and teenagers forming their identities…the human aspirations, behaviours and challenges not different than anywhere else in the world. And yet, because of Myanmar’s recent history, there’s a unique flare to how it’s happening here.

Nowhere is this unique Myanmar flavour better highlighted than through the sixteen speakers featured at the TEDxInyaLake event last month. The curators did a stellar job of blending personal human stories and living and working here with a few featuring some of the rich history and art of this place. While they are all worth a watch, I wanted to feature a few of my favourite ones in no particular order.

Love Poems: How love enriched Myanmar literature forever from by Nay Oke

The day started out with the theme of love. Nay Oke spoke about a famous poet who wrote nursery rhymes all the Burmese children would have grown up with. These were written by his late mother’s past lover and the story is beautiful.

What I learned from Myanmar entrepreneurs by Thura Ko Ko

Without a doubt my favourite one of the day. Thura uses humour to show how business works in Myanmar. For all the tire kickers who constantly ask me what doing business is like here, this is the one to watch.

Rebuilding Myanmar, One child labourer at a time by Tim Aye-Hardy

Tim has an incredible business converting buses to mobile classrooms and rolling up in front of tea houses to teach children outside of the formal education system.

Finding your place in the world through the pursuit of your passion by Mogok Pauk Pauk

Mogok Pauk Pauk shares a powerful story of resilience. The first and probably most famous transgender person in Myanmar, her story is heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time.

The videos are all only 15-20 minutes each and are all worth a watch. I hope you enjoy these as much as I did. Here’s the full playlist for your viewing pleasure.

Strategies for digital success in Myanmar

Another opinion piece I wrote for Frontier Magazine.

Myanmar is one of the most exciting tech stories in decades. This is the first time in history that a telecommunications infrastructure has been built data first. A couple of years ago the government said it wanted to achieve mobile penetration of about 80 percent in three years. Most people laughed and yet, less than two years after the foreign telcos launched their services, mobile penetration sits well above 50 percent.

There are two other countries that have been able to grow from below 15 percent to over 80 percent in three years: Vietnam and Russia. Given the speed of adoption in Myanmar, there’s no reason to think that it can’t also achieve this target.

Everyone knows that Myanmar’s mobile penetration has seen exponential growth but merely giving people a cheap SIM card does not actually connect them to anything. The other piece to “connecting” Myanmar is through the content. Without the right incentives to bring people online, the infrastructure is meaningless.

So what exactly is happening in the tech scene here?

The past few years have seen an explosion of localised apps and online services but with almost no exception, they are targeted at smartphone users, which is growing but still only a total addressable market of fewer than 10 million people. And let’s not forget their limited purchasing power. The Myanmar tech startups are also competing with industry giants, which have all localised their service offerings for the market. In some cases, those giants are spending enormous amounts of money to buy market share.

The chat wars are easy to spot: Beeline, WeChat and LINE, all billion dollar “unicorns” battling it out with each other while a few local players attempt to play with the big boys. Even Viber is losing ground now that it is not the only chat app that offers voice calling and allows for account authentication. It’s easy to be number one when everyone else is effectively blocked – something that happened in Vietnam a few years ago. Once the government stopped blocking Facebook, home-grown Zing took a major nose dive in market share.

Myanmar has no consumer-friendly banking, no common e-payments system, no credit ratings, not even reliable postal, utilities or logistics networks – digital or otherwise. Most of the people online do not know the difference between the internet and Facebook, and have been signed up to Facebook by the person who sold them their phone. They have never opened a browser, don’t have email addresses and have a friends’ list that is full of strangers.

On the plus side, we are also dealing with a consumer audience which is not yet inundated with huge amounts of content and with a thirst for trying new things and open to marketing messages.

So how do you build technology for a group of people who want it but are not really ready for it? In a market where access and knowledge are limited and people are hesitant to try things they don’t understand?

Winning this comes down to two simple things.

1: Remove the barriers to entry

In a country where the technical barriers to entry are high, ensuring that your customers can access your product is key. This can mean different things depending on your product and target market but in Myanmar, it usually comes down to a creative mix of online and offline initiatives.

At Jzoo we install tablets at our merchant locations and allow for our consumers to access through a printed card. This allows anyone to join, regardless of whether they have a smartphone or not. Additionally, our partners do not need to have any technical infrastructure or knowledge to integrate online marketing initiatives.

2: Own the first five minutes

This is a mantra of the gaming world but should really be for anyone who is building product. Since you only get one chance to make a good first impression, make sure that it counts here, too. Think of the last time you tried something new and how discouraging it was to not understand it or even worse, when it didn’t work. By ensuring that the first impression of the product is flawless, you will lower your abandon rate and likely raise your referral one.

Be creative about how to accomplish this, but make sure your customers understand what is going on and are enjoying themselves. Features such as a lazy login (so users can experience the product before forcing a sign in), and tutorials, go a long way in helping to own the first five minutes and keeping your customers engaged.

Technology for women

As with many Asian societies, women – especially mothers – are a core to the family and community. If we affect women, we affect everyone. On average (globally), 90% of the money women earn, they reinvest in the home and the family. Study after study shows that connecting women to the Internet has profound benefits to their lives, that of their families and even provides a significant boost to the national income. By deliberately focusing on breaking down barriers that stop women from connecting we accelerate the engines of growth for the country’s economy. And yet it’s estimated that women in developing worlds are between 25-40% less connected then men.  Women in Myanmar are 29% less likely to own a device then men according to a recent GSMA report.  I believe that this comes down into two things: 1. There’s not enough women in the tech sector and 2. Mostly because of the first problem, there’s not enough people building tech with the needs and perspectives of women in mind. The issue of not enough women in tech is vast and probably deserves its own piece in the future but there are immediate things that can be done regarding the second.

Beyond the issue of gender equality, women make up half of the population and consumer market so it just makes economic sense to include them. A great example of this comes from the gaming world (of course I’m going to use a gaming example). For decades, gaming – especially console gaming – was predominately male-focused. Then in 2009, Nintendo introduced the Wii and turned the gaming world on its head.  Not only did they sell over 10 million units that year alone, eight of the top twenty selling games in 2010 were on the Wii, predominately driven by fitness and dancing games. Nintendo tapped into a couple of key drivers. First, women themselves were a huge untapped gaming market. By making gaming accessible and removing barriers to entry, they were able to effectively double their addressable market. Their mantra of “5 to 95” meant that all their design choices were made from the ground up to be inclusive for non gamers. Second, women make almost all the decisions when it comes to household purchases. Nintendo’s focus on family-friendly games appealed to women and women just do not buy shooting and fighting games for their families.

As with most technology stories, content is king…or in this case, queen. Building products that appeal to females and their specific interests means that there’s relevancy, which is a key driver to any tech adoption. As mentioned earlier, women are the core of the familial units. This means that they are often the primary health care providers, not just for the children but also the elder and ailing. Women are also the ones who are focused on the household diet and nutrition and the ones who make most of the financial decisions for the household. Products which tap into the domestic needs of a household or help the women in their day to day lives will surely appeal. Appearing fun or frivolous isn’t going to work with this group.

Another driver for adoption is in the design process. Creating products for women means that you need to consider what would appeal to them – and I don’t mean pretty pink hearts. Rather, consider this from Nintendo’s perspective and create the product from the ground up with women in mind. For instance, women, especially women in developing markets have less leisure time then men, meaning they are less inclined to spend large amounts of time trying to understand a new tech product. Design decisions such as breaking up the content into bite sized pieces and ease of entry are critical to female adoption. Take a look at the Duolingo app as an incredible example of how to break down e-learning into consumable chunks. Easy to pick up and understand, spend a few minutes with and come back to when time allows.

When trying attract women to your product, consider the other traits that are more typical of females. Generally speaking, we tend to be the planners and researchers – whether it’s more superficial things like restaurants and vacations to more serious needs such as healthcare. In general, we are more risk adverse and subsequently more inclined to plan for future. Women are more social and do not spend a lot of their spare time on themselves but will take the time if it is for the benefit of their family.

Having said all of this, the single most effective way to get more women connected is to get more girls into STEM majors and encourage these young women to stay in the tech sector once they are done school. Groups such as Geek Girls are trying to do their part but it’s a big issue that requires more awareness and support across the board. Myanmar presents such a unique opportunity – here is a country that is coming online almost overnight and if we can ensure the voice of the women are heard just as loudly, there’s a good chance that Myanmar connectivity is balanced fairly evenly between genders as it comes online.

Catching and keeping your first million customers in Myanmar

I recently started to write a few articles for a local business magazine, Frontier.  Below is an excerpt and link to the first article.  The next ones are about rolling out tech to Myanmar consumers and the third about building tech for girls. Hit me up with any other ideas you think might be interesting!

Catching and keeping your first million customers in Myanmar

Myanmar’s mobile penetration has seen exponential growth particularly in urban areas, with internet penetration and smart phone adoption following at a slightly slower rate. Nearly 70 percent of Myanmar’s population lives in rural areas where mobile penetration is significantly lower than the cities. While I don’t know what percentage of those devices are smart phones, I’m willing to bet it’s in the single digits.

The easy growth part of this story is over: those who have been waiting for years to get a SIM card now have one. The challenge now is to get to the harder to reach population and areas.

For those with smart phones, there’s a big question of content. The explosion of localised apps and online services has been targeted at urban users. It’s a growing market but a market of less than 10 million people with limited purchasing power.

Myanmar has about 30 million people who have mostly come online for the first time in the past 12 months. They have no digital footprint, no knowledge of how to find content and pay for content, no online communities where they gather. So how do you get to these people?

…Read more here

Choosing easy

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us. – J.R.R. Tolkien

It’s only been a few weeks so probably a little too early to call it but 2016 is shaping up to be the best year yet. A series of changes and shakeups, some planned and others forced have put me in an amazing place recently, both professionally and personally. It’s rare that we take the moments to slow down and recognize happiness but I have to say, right now, sitting on a rooftop watching the sun go down on the other side of Shwedagon, I’m happy. Really happy.

I’ve been mulling over this, trying to determine what’s different and how I can consciously, proactively keep living like this. I think it’s tied to a conversation I had with a friend about a week ago. I rather blithely announced that 2016 was the year of no assholes and more importantly, choosing the easy path. We laughed about the first but had a surprisingly deep conversation about the latter.

We both agreed that we needed to stop always taking the hardest, most challenging paths laid in front of us. It was time to stop proving that we could conquer and accept that we have. To start choosing ourselves over our reputations. To provide some context, this was a person who was also in their late 30’s and running a major conglomerate. I was shocked that I was getting not just support but active agreement from someone who is wildly successful and simply didn’t have an off switch that I could ever see.

As a society, we are so ingrained to believe that the easy path is the opposite of the rewarding one. That by choosing easy, we are choosing to forego rewarding. I’m hellbent to prove this wrong this year. Like I said earlier, it’s a little too early to call it but I suspect 2016 is going to be highly rewarding AND one of the easiest I’ve had in a long time. Who’s with me?

2015 wrap up

I write one of these every year and usually it comes really easily to me.  But I’ve been mulling over this particular wrap up for days and still am not entirely sure how to view 2015. Generally I can look at the past 12 months and give it a grade but 2015 was just all over the place.

One one hand, I launched a second company, met some incredible people and overall got my life back on track which was no easy feat given what 2014 looked like. I’m proud of my accomplishments and recognize that there’s been a lot of significant milestones. I’ve done things that that I didn’t think could do again and overcame a hell of a lot of insecurities and fears to get back on the entrepreneur train. All good things.

And yet, 2015 probably saw me do more things that I regret than at any other time in my life. I don’t normally live with regrets, what a useless emotion but as I sit and write this,  I also know that 2015 will leave more scars than I care to admit. But I also know that scars are character building and the lessons learned are important. The below is also an important reminder to find peace with 2015.


Those who know me, know how much I love the Christmas season. And there’s nothing as rejuvenating as going home and surrounding yourself with people who love you. This week has given me more clarity and balance than I’ve had all year. I can literally feel the stress melt away as I sip on eggnog lattes, eat gingerbread and catch up with people who have known me for decades.


Now is not the time for regrets. Now is a time for peace and joy. A time to reflect on all those who entered into my life, however briefly, to share a story, a laugh, a tear. To all my friends and readers, I hope you have a beautiful Christmas full of love and laughter and a 2016 that is successful and full of rich experiences.


I was talking to a friend about upcoming NYE plans and mentioned that I’ve not partied on the 31st for years now.  I know that the normal tradition is to ring in the new year with a big countdown and some champagne but January 1st has always been more important to me.

For the past 5 years I’ve been on a plane on the morning of the first which seems to set the right tone for the year ahead. Travel has always been a huge part of my life and starting it by going somewhere makes sense. Also, flying on the first is actually quite pleasant – the airports and planes tend to be quiet and the hassles of holiday travel are greatly reduced.

More importantly for me though,  I’ve always been on the plane alone which allows for me to reset for the year ahead. There’s something about the forced down time with no connectivity right after the craziness of the holidays that is deeply relaxing. While clean slates can be done at any time, there’s something about Jan 1st that is special, giving you some mental distance for the year behind and, good or bad, put it to bed. I’ve never been much for traditions but to my surprise, this has become one and something I don’t think will end anytime soon.